Secrets of an Ancient Arena

Jim McMahon/Mapman®

The year is 80 A.D. An excited crowd of nearly 50,000 people pack into a new amphitheater in Rome, the capital of the vast Roman Empire. Suddenly, two men wearing armor and holding shields and swords rise from beneath the arena floor. The main event has begun at what will become one of the world’s most famous buildings—the Colosseum. 

At the time, the Romans controlled much of what is now Europe, West Asia, and North Africa. Cities throughout the Roman Empire had amphitheaters, but the Colosseum stood out from the rest.

“It is the largest, most important Roman amphitheater ever built,” says Steven Tuck, a historian who’s an expert on ancient Rome.

The Colosseum was like today’s sports stadiums, and gladiator matches were the biggest attraction. Beneath the arena was a series of hidden passageways called hypogea, where gladiators prepared for battle. In June of this year, these underground tunnels were opened to the public for the first time. 

Take a look inside the most famous sports arena in history.

Still Standing

Evan Reinheimer/Getty Images

The Colosseum was built over a period of about eight years nearly 2,000 years ago. Experts consider it one of the most remarkable examples of Roman architecture. Arches and columns supported the weight of the arena, which was made of stone, concrete, and marble.

Over the centuries, more than two-thirds of the Colosseum was destroyed. Since the 1990s, the ancient amphitheater, including the hypogea, has slowly been renovated. It’s the most popular tourist site in Rome, with more than 5 million visitors in most years.

Stars of the Show

Illustrations by Jeff Mangiat

Gladiators were the star athletes of the Roman Empire. Most were enslaved men or prisoners, but some were citizens who volunteered to fight in the hopes of becoming a celebrity.

“You could become rich and famous,” Tuck says. “If you worked hard, if you succeeded, you could improve your life.”

Most gladiators fought only a few times a year, like today’s boxers and ultimate fighters. Tuck says most gladiators didn’t die in battle. But when one was too injured to continue fighting or performed poorly during a match, the emperor could choose to have him killed.

Backstage Pass

Illustrations by Jeff Mangiat

As gladiators fought on the Colosseum floor, a lot was happening below their feet. 

“The underground tunnels are the equivalent of the backstage of a theater,” Tuck explains.

Sets, costumes, and weapons were kept there. In hidden rooms, gladiators prepared for battle. In other areas, doctors treated gladiators’ wounds.

Lions, tigers, and elephants were also kept in the hypogea. Gladiators didn’t fight them, but skilled hunters did. The animals were raised up in elevators pulled by ropes. The creatures would burst into the arena from trapdoors, surprising the crowd.

1. Based on the article, what was the Roman Empire?

2. Name four things you might have seen if you went into the hypogea of the Colosseum in 80 A.D.

3. What is status? What does the article suggest about the status of women in ancient Rome?

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